Don’t get mad, get even—especially in matters of houses and ex-spouses. That seems to have been the message Mary Alice Huntington hoped to send when, in 1910, fresh off her divorce from her railroad-heir ex-husband, the San Francisco socialite built the architectural equivalent of a revenge dress. The mansion was one of the grandest the city had ever seen, with nine bedrooms over nearly 12,000 square feet, a Tudor Revival facade of Shakespearean dimensions, and a seriously sexy view out to San Francisco Bay.
And so it stood for more than a century until in 2018 the house went on the market, and a neighbor, living two doors down with her husband and children, became obsessed. True, the two-toned exterior, with its brick chimneys and timber corbels, exuded a certain archaic glory—no match, one would think, for a dynamic philanthropic couple whose art collection includes works by Lorna Simpson, Mark Bradford, and Richard Prince.
But she saw the potential. “I had always admired its beauty,” she says. Her husband, who is in finance, initially disagreed. “He thought it was the ugliest house he had ever seen,” says designer Nicole Hollis, who oversaw the renovation alongside the architect Stephen Willrich. “He didn’t think we could do anything with it.”
Today, the meticulously restored landmark exterior is elegant in charcoal gray. And the interiors are utterly transformed—a testament to the power in combining bespoke design with a professional’s vision and a homeowner’s unbridled enthusiasm. The tone is set in the entry hall, where a mirror-polished bronze pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama is framed by a swooping white-plaster staircase; it was Hollis, who was hired midproject, who proposed replacing the traditional picket staircase with this dramatic, modern gesture. “That just blew everybody’s socks off,” the owner says. “It has this Guggenheim feel. It’s just extraordinary and edgy.”
Hollis, whose modernist interiors are layered with work by the artisans she seeks out around the globe, filled the house with surprises: Just steps from the entry lies a dark-walled powder room where a fluorescent-tube light installation by American artist Johanna Grawunder hovers over a blue-resin vanity by Dutch designer Sabine Marcelis. The photogenic, Dan Flavin–like space is a hit with the couple’s two teenagers.
On the second level, a massive picture window overlooks a thicket of trees, San Francisco’s lush Presidio Park visible just beyond. The living room features a sculpture by Larry Bell and a painting by Josef Albers—both homages to the square. But if the art is all about right angles, every-thing else in the space, from the Pierre Paulin chairs to the oval cocktail table by the Campana brothers, has rounded corners. “It was unintentional,” Hollis says, “but at one point I realized that everything curves, from the staircase to the furniture.”
When she pushed the couple to take some chances, they were persuadable—and stuck with the plan even when the pandemic made everything more complicated. This is how they came to have an entire kitchen, including decorative fronts for built-in appliances, handmade in Tuscany from a single block of pale, purple-veined Breccia Capraia marble. “It’s so tricked out; you knock on the dishwasher, and it opens,” Hollis notes. “There’s no need for hardware.”
Even more ambitious was an entire dining room commissioned from a single artist, Paris-based Ingrid Donat, who created grooved-wood panels for the walls, custom lighting, and a dining table, fireplace surround, and crown molding all in hand-cast bronze. The room was fabricated in Donat’s studio in France; each piece was numbered and shipped on pallets to San Francisco, where they were installed by local craftspeople. “It took us over a year and a half to get it done,” Hollis says. “It was down to the wire.”
An entire dining room was commissioned from a single artist—from the wall panels to the fireplace.
For the couple, the house was envisioned as a place where they could host charitable events and share their art collection with the local cultural community. But of course, it was also intended as a refuge for their family. After moving in last fall, the family couldn’t resist gathering in their dining room over a meal of Chinese takeout. “Our lifestyle isn’t formal, but the room is soft, warm, and cozy,” the owner says. “You just want to sit at that table with the fireplace on, eat and drink too much, and have a lot of laughs. That’s the sentiment I wanted for this entire house—a place to build memories while enjoying the work of the artists all around us.”
Mary Alice Huntington, who commissioned the home over a century ago, would likely have approved. Living well, after all, is the best revenge.
This story originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE
Ingrid Abramovitch, the Executive Editor at ELLE Decor, writes about design, architecture, renovation, and lifestyle, and is the author of several books on design including Restoring a House in the City.